What’s behind the recent protests in Israel?

| Aayush Pal
Many fear that the judicial reforms, similar to what Turkey and Poland attempted, will render the Supreme Court inferior to the parliament and turn Israel into a semi-democratic state.
Tens of thousands of Israelis protest against the proposed changes to the legal system, in Tel Aviv, on January 21, 2023.

It has been merely two weeks since Benjamin Netanyahu is back as the Prime Minister of Israel with far-right leaders in his council. Since his government was sworn in, there has been one controversy after another. One such controversy over judicial reforms has led to massive protests on the streets of Tel Aviv, which saw hundreds and thousands of people protest against Netanyahu’s administration.

The Reason for the Protests

The newly appointed cabinet along with the other legislators in the Knesset passed a bill reducing the powers of the Supreme Court of Israel under which the Knesset can change and reverse the judgments of the Supreme Court. Many fear that the judicial reforms, similar to what Turkey and Poland attempted, will render the Supreme Court inferior to the parliament and turn Israel into a semi-democratic state. Further, Prime Minister Netanyahu is under trial for corruption and the bill to reduce the power of the top court has raised many eyebrows. Though the final verdict is still awaited, this attempt to undercut the Supreme Court is seen as an attempt by Netanyahu to free himself from the charges. This has angered many including the opposition in Israel. 

Soon after the bill was passed, protestors in large numbers came onto the streets, opposing the government’s intentions. The Israeli police blocked the roads and stopped the protestors from entering the residence of the Prime Minister, forcing the National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir to advise the police to use water canyons to stop the protestors.

Governments Rationale for the Judicial reforms 

PM Netanyahu while bringing the reforms said “legislating the reforms in a way that will correct what needs correcting will protect individual rights, and will restore the public’s faith in the justice system that so much requires this reform.”

Those who are for the judicial reforms in the coalition government say the reforms are being rolled out to check Supreme Court’s “over-reaching” attitude. The government has assured the public that their government believes in a rule-based order and would strictly conserve the rights of the people.

Concerns among the Judiciary and the People

The bill, which curbs the power of the Supreme Court on the grounds of reasonableness, gives an edge to legislators over the judiciary. The protestors say that this would give limitless power to legislators, turning them unaccountable and violating the principle of checks and balances. Additionally, the plan includes changing the law so that ministers can install political appointees as legal advisers in their ministries, something that is not under their authority today. 

Former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who was the keynote speaker at the demonstration in Tel Aviv, said that the government “has launched a war” against Israel’s democratic institutions. The Supreme Court judge Ayala Procaccia told protesters that a “country in which judges need to demonstrate against attempts for regime change is a country in which all lines were crossed.”

The president of the Supreme Court of Israel, Mr Hayut, said that the move by the government is a big blow to the judiciary as it gives enormous power to legislators. Replying to the comments of Hayut, the Justice Minister of Israel said that “the president of the Supreme Court wanted to turn the court into a political party.”

Other controversies of Netanyahu’s government

Soon after coming to power, Netanyahu was in the limelight for the appointments of Zionists like Bezalel Smotrich and far-right leaders like Ben Gvir (the present National Security Minister), who are considered to be anti-Arab. Ben Gvir was embroiled in a controversy recently as he entered the Al Aqsa mosque compound. The move seen as an attempt to change the status quo of the historic site drew criticism from all quarters including Israel’s allies like the United States, France and the United Kingdom, as well as from Abraham Accord partners like the UAE, Bahrain and even Saudi Arabia. 

Netanyahu has had to face challenges during the early days of his new stint as Prime Minister of Israel. These come at a critical juncture for Israel in geopolitics as a major nexus between Tehran and Moscow threatens to isolate Isreal in the region. To counter Tehran’s closing ties with Moscow, Netanyahu’s government has decided to not criticize Russia over the war in Ukraine. 

Netanyahu would not only have to win the trust of common Israelis to bring stability inside the country, but he would also need to clear his name in the corruption charges levied on him. Challenges both within and outside Israel are a major concern for Netanyahu and it needs to be seen how he would navigate through them in the coming days.

(The author is a post-graduate student in International Relations at Kalinga university, Raipur. The opinions expressed are the author’s own)

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